Reciprocity, as described below, is a manipulative technique. My aim for this article is twofold: firstly, it sensitizes you to one of the many things people can do to get you to do their bidding. Secondly, reciprocity is a handy technique for those circumstances where certain ends can justify certain means.
Reciprocity is treating other people as they treat you, or for the purpose of this article, as you wish to be treated—specifically with the expectation that they will reciprocate your favor in the future.
In other words, reciprocity is a sneaky trick that permits deliberate interpersonal influence. Do something for other people and they will be willing to do something for you, partly because they’ll be uncomfortable feeling indebted to you.
The concept of reciprocity is ingrained in human nature. As part of our upbringing, we are taught to give something back to people who give us something. Reciprocity and cooperation are the underpinnings of a civilized society—they allow us to help people who need it and to hope that they will help us when we need it. Research suggests that the desire to repay goodwill is hard-wired in the human brain.
Jack Schafer’s The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over (2015) offers a clever technique to put reciprocity into action:
The next time someone thanks you for something, don’t say, “You’re welcome.” Instead, say, “I know you’d do the same thing for me.” This response invokes reciprocity. The other person is now predisposed to help you when you ask them for a favor.
The effects of goodwill are short-lived. A long-forgotten reputation for helpfulness gets you nothing. You have to renew your reputation by helping others regularly.
To learn more about reciprocity, read social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1984.) He identified reciprocity as one of six principles that can help get others’ compliance to your requests.